Posted by: aboutalbion | December 1, 2013

History and rhetorical realisms (2)

‘Reconstructionism’ is the first type of history that Jenkins and Munslow identify, and they cite it as “the conventional view of history writing in the West …” (p7)

‘Reconstructionism’ is associated with the theory of empiricism which emphasizes sensory experience and evidence.  After defining the past as a sequence of individual events that have left traces behind, reconstructionist historians are noted for their “undiluted belief in the power of empiricism to access the past … as it actually was.  …  [T]he truth of the past can somehow … be discovered in the sources and, hence, the true story of the event can be rediscovered and … narrated accurately.” (p7)

“In other words, the past can be ‘known’ truthfully under the careful and responsible tutelage of the knowledgeable and scrupulous historian who ‘stands outside’ her/his own existence or situation.” (p7)

“Reconstructionists tend to see the narrative as simply the vehicle for the truth of the past because the image in the narrative refers (corresponds) to the reality of the past.” (p7)

Jenkins and Munslow cite one such historian who “maintains that historians can tell what the intentions of people in the past were because they were basically like us.  So, telling the story of what they did is largely unproblematic.” (p7)

If I have understood this type of history correctly, then reconstructionist historians believe that the facts (the evidence, the traces) speak for themselves.  And this would seem to imply that all competent English-speaking historians would narrate the same story about any given past event.

Jenkins and Munslow critique this type of history as an “impossible position to maintain” on two counts. (p8)

First, “history is only as good as its sources”.  In practice, reconstructionist history is flawed because the past only leaves fragmentary traces on the occasions when it leaves any traces at all.

For example, recently, there was the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.  Despite there being ample evidence available, the absence of every conceivable relevant witness has meant that there continues to be no explanatory history of that event that commands universal assent.

Second, history cannot be done by empiricism alone.  In all history writing, evidence is “narrated in order to create an explanation with an emplotment.  [These narratives] are also laden with concepts, theories and ideologies …  Once we ratchet up from the single factual statement about the event, we enter the universe of judgements, encodations, descriptions, depictions, ethics, values, images, metaphors, decisions, verdicts and interpretations of ‘texts’.  None of these [putative sources of meaning] can be verified, validated or confirmed [in relation to those participants at the past event in question].” (p9)

[Jenkins, Keith and Munslow, Alun (eds) (2004) The Nature of History Reader.  London: Routledge.]


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